Missile 1, Flying Laser 0. So much for America's real-life "lightsaber."
The Missile Defense Agency has spent billions to trick out a Boeing 747 with a laser to shoot down missiles. But the so-called Airborne Laser Test Bed just failed a crucial test that it was expected to pass: shooting down a mock nuclear-armed missile from 100 miles away.
Sure, the flying laser was able to hit the dummy missile as it launched, reports Danger Room co-founder Sharon Weinberger, who broke the story for AOL News. But it wasn't able to send it crashing into the Pacific Ocean during a September 1 test, as it was supposed to - and this was after delaying the test four times. "Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to destroy the target missile," the agency emailed Weinberger.
The failure of the test raises the question of whether the Pentagon's continuing to spend money on what most in the national security establishment believe to be a discredited sci-fi fantasy. (Easy to see why they'd think that: "I believe we are building the forces of good to beat the forces of evil," a former MDA chief once crowed. "We are taking a major step in giving the American people their first lightsaber.") Wonks have long since written the Airborne Laser off. Ellen Tauscher, now the State Department's senior-most arms control official, derided the long-overdue $4 billion program as "the definition of insanity - doing the same thing over and over despite failing each time." Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave the Airborne Laser program the ax during his 2009 defense budget war, leaving behind a single, experimental plane.
But then came an eleventh-hour boost for the Airborne Laser and its congressional advocates. Last February, a residual flying laser successfully blasted a dummy missile from 50 miles away. That led Congress and the Pentagon to add $40 million to for continued testing.
From a technical perspective, even under optimal conditions, the chemical-powered flying laser was probably never long for this world. Chief Pentagon technologist Zach Lemnios told reporters last month that he's looking forward to lighter, electric-powered lasers that can replace it without requiring a cavernous 747 for transport. (It's part of the Pentagon's ongoing quest for real-life laser guns.) He supported the Airborne Laser as way to work out energy weapon subsystems before those electric lasers were good to go. But after doubling the distance that the laser cannon had to zap a short-range ballistic missile as it took flight - epic fail.
This was a test the Missile Defense Agency wanted - badly - for the Airborne Laser to nail. After repeatedly delaying the test for various technical reasons, the agency didn't disclose the test's failure for a week, following inquiries from Weinberger. "We didn't get any queries till today," spokesman Richard Lehner told her.
Except not really. Danger Room editor Noah Shachtman, who's been writing about the Airborne Laser's various tests (and all other laser weapons, for that matter), emailed the agency on August 27 for any and all information about the imminent California test. The response: crickets.
As Weinberger writes, it's unclear what's going to happen to the Airborne Laser. Sure, it's track record is, ahem, uneven. But the plane is a congressional favorite because - hello, flying missile-zapping laser. Just FYI: the money for the Airborne Laser - $146 million, this year alone - runs out this month. Then it flies off into an uncertain future.
Credit: Missile Defense Agency